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Every Catholic in the world should read St Augustine’s Confessions

You cannot do moral theology without the saint, whose feast day is today

By on Wednesday, 28 August 2013

St Augustine and St Monica, as depicted by Ary Scheffer

St Augustine and St Monica, as depicted by Ary Scheffer

Like Benedict XVI, I am a devotee of St Augustine, whose feast we celebrate today. My enthusiasm for the saint first started when I read the Confessions at the tender age of 19. After that, as a theology student in Rome, I thought I would go on to study patristics, but I was given no encouragement to do so, and the way patristics were taught at the level of the institutional course was enough to put anyone off.

Indeed, quite a lot of people simply do not get the importance of Augustine: when I was doing my doctoral thesis I was told again and again that Augustine was of no relevance to moral theology. I begged to differ, and wrote a thesis, later published as a book, which more or less says that you cannot do moral theology without Augustine. It’s there in libraries for people to read; maybe one day people will wake up to the fact that Augustine is the essential basis of any true moral method. But I am not holding my breath.

Yesterday was the feast of Saint Monica, Augustine’s mother, and the passage used as second reading at the Office of Readings was the climactic passage from the Confessions known as the ecstasy of Ostia. You can read that passage here, though the most important bit has been left out, incredibly. The whole passage, untruncated, is reproduced here, with an interesting commentary.

The ecstasy of Ostia reminds us that in its origins Christianity is an ecstatic cult, a going out of oneself towards the sublimity and beauty of God. And that too is what morality is: a striving towards the sublime good, a sense of being called to live in the light of that which lies just beyond us, perceptible, but out of sight. It is not really about fulfilling a law, still less finding out the minimal requirements that fulfill the law: it is about being stretched towards that which is greater than ourselves. It is sensing a call.

This is something that also underpins the Office for today’s feast, also taken from the Confessions, where Augustine confesses that he feels the call of the beauty so ancient and yet so new.  This concept, that of a goodness and beauty that calls to us, is what Benedict XVI felt and what he wanted to draw our attention to. We need to lift up our eyes, and we need to feel the longing of our hearts, as did the great Augustine. Liturgy should be the place where that longing is kindled and where it finds fulfillment too.

The Augustinian stream has always been present in Catholicism; it was certainly present in the great Bonaventure, who wrote the superb Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (The Journey of the Mind into God), a short book that can still be read with great profit today; it is certainly present in the great Catholic works of art, such as Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, and in great Catholic architecture, both gothic and baroque. But if I had one wish for today’s feast, it would be this: that every Catholic in the world read St Augustine’s Confessions. It has so much to teach us. Don’t let anyone put you off!